Play and Learn with Wallace is a unified series of early learning apps, housed within a miniature app storefront. Commissioned by Macmillan, a renowned international publishing company, Unicorn Labs developed the app to offer preschoolers fun and engaging educational content on the iPad. Watch a trailer of the app in action here.
Please share a bit of background on Unicorn Labs.
Unicorn Labs is a respected producer of more than 20 eBooks, apps and educational games for iOS, netting millions of downloads, multiple New York Times write-ups, and is a recipient of the Kirkus Star. Spot the Dot, a title we produced for Ruckus Media with David A. Carter, was recognized as one of the Best Kids’ Book Apps of 2011.
In the past, you have developed your own eBooks. What led to the work you’re doing with Macmillan?
Our strategy as a company has always been to divide our efforts between original titles that we create and wholly own, and those developed in tandem with others, such as Spot the Dot. In this case, Macmillan’s Priddy Books is a beloved children’s publisher that is recognized worldwide. Priddy has created over 500 titles and sold over 100 million books, so it represented a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with a great brand and a wonderful team. We couldn’t pass that opportunity up.
Tell us about Play and Learn with Wallace from a functionality perspective. What functionality did you and Macmillan want to achieve?
Our general goals were two-fold. One was the basic learning curve from building past titles whereby tremendous effort goes into creating and marketing a new title. Yet, the half-life of the title is relatively short, and the leverage from one title to the next is de minimis. All of the leg work that goes into creating an audience for title one typically disappears into the ether by title two. We knew that in the age of iPads and app stores, we needed to take a unified approach to the how the app was created and discovered as well take into account the lifecycle of user engagement and the path to monetization. Macmillan fervently believed that this was the right path, and entrusted us to help them execute this plan. At its core, we view this as an installed base play.
Macmillan was very clear that they weren’t looking for a simple redux of their print books in digital form. That was the catalyst for a deep dive assessment on what works in the children’s market, what’s durable in terms of engagement and what had a proven path to monetization. Of course, the finished project needed to be harmonious with Macmillan’s brand and content.
Tell us about Play and Learn from a technical perspective. The app interacts with a fairly complex back-end, correct?
The simplicity, elegance and design richness of Play and Learn belies enormous complexity operating under the hood. Fundamentally, there are four cornerstones. One is a template driven model that we created called Playspaces. Playspaces are lightweight single-screen games (or other activities) that can randomly or algorithmically call upon snippets of text, art, audio and other interaction logic to create a very rich, dynamic user experience. No two user sessions are ever the same in Play and Learn with Wallace as a result.
Two is a cloud based content management system that uses JSON to shuttle content between the native run time and the cloud, allowing us to achieve a nice hybrid between the real-time robustness of a native app and the just-in-time agility of a web app. As a result of this, changes to content, layout or interaction settings can be made instantly without going through the app store submission process, and in fact, we are able to release new derivative apps from existing templates via this same model – which took a fair bit of front-end planning, as you can imagine.
Three is what we call a content storefront, which is best thought of as a mini app store within Apple’s App Store for all of the apps in the Play and Learn with Wallace series. Not only does this aid in the user discovery process, but we’ve built common layers that are shared by all apps, creating a unified experience across the entire series.
Four is a by product of this integration, which is a data driven user profile, which allows users to personalize their experience, children to accrue rewards as they progress through the system and parents to gain visibility into how their children are performing.
How did Corona SDK help you accomplish both the functionality and technical requirements of the project?
Corona SDK is instrumental in everything we do, inasmuch as the platform that we’ve built – we call it a Dynamic Content Storefront – is derived from the eBook platform that we began developing two and half years ago on top of Corona. Corona SDK has continuously improved since then, and the platform decisions that Corona Labs has made have taken us forward without breaking our legacy code base. No one wants to have to re-create the wheel unnecessarily, and Corona Labs has shown great discipline in that regards.
How does Corona SDK compare to other platforms that you’ve considered?
In the past, we used Cocos2d. The main observations there (we don’t develop with it anymore) is that it’s largely unsupported. As a result, the apps we created using Cocos2d required significant re-engineering as Apple rolled out new versions of iOS. Corona SDK shields us from most of this complexity.
Would you recommend Corona to publishers looking to bring content to the mobile and digital worlds?
Yes. We are highly enthusiastic about Corona, both from a technical perspective and from a high-touch human perspective in terms of technical support.